The Beasts of the Southern Wild is very much one of the most buzzed films at Sundance right now. Everyone either loves it or respects it greatly. Whether or not this movie about a young girl facing a flood and terrible hog-monsters catches on with a wider audience remains to be seen — but I feel confident saying that he is a sincere new talent on the scene and that this is in a fresh, exciting film floating up from what feels like another world.
Beasts is set in an outside-the-levee Bayou island, an insular community called "The Bathtub," that is part-enchanting Brigadoon, part-train wreck reality show. It is a loose collection of muddy shacks, loaded with a citizenry of bath-resistant, tooth decay victims who, nevertheless, drink their Miller High Life and suck back their crab legs with a vigor expressive of a lust for life that we "beyond the wall" and "up on the hills" could never understand.
Our eyes to The Bathtub is young Hushpuppy. Played by Quvenzhané Wallis and coiffed to resemble an Aaron McGruder cartoon, Hushpuppy's Malick-lite voice over betrays a wisdom beyond her six years. She is attuned of the fabric of the universe, the invisible particles in the air and is oftentimes concerned about leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for "scientists of the future."
At what passes for school in The Bathtub, a one-room, floating shack run by a wise woman who also dabbles in herbal medicines, Hushpuppy learns about the food chain, how we're all meat, and that the cavemen "didn't sit around crying like a bunch of pussies." They know the flood will come one day, and when Hushpuppy makes a dramatic strike against her father, the thawing of the great glacier begins.
There are a great number of themes drifting through The Beasts of The Southern Wild, but the central one is that between Hushpuppy and her father Wink. He cares for her greatly, but initially they live in different houses. (Houses should maybe be in quotes — these are ramshackle dwellings of filth and disorder, and no stranger to livestock.) Hushpuppy's mother "swam away," but is remembered fondly by Wink as a woman so beautiful she could light a stove just by walking past it. (This is scene in flashback, a nice bookend to Hushpuppy who uses a flamethrower to heat up dinner.)
The flood, of course, does come and the community bands together, drinking, laughing, eating seafood without forks, until the brackish water begins to kill everything off.
After a clever attempt to reclaim their underwater homes, the inevitable comes in the form of a helicopter and men with clipboards. Our extended family is brought "over the wall" and placed in the "Open Arms Processing Center."
Hushpuppy describes it as a fish tank without water, and to her eyes this bland, clean facility may as well be another planet. It is the first time she sees anything white. (By this, I don't mean racially. Beasts quite interestingly, and without commentary, shows The Bathtub as being a very integrated community. There's a white elder statesman, Walrus, who wears suspenders and Petey T., never seen without a porkpie hat, even when in the water setting off dynamite.)
It isn't just civilization that's coming for them — it's the ice age beasts set loose from Hushpuppy's glacier. Giant, snorting hog-monsters stomping their way toward The Bathtub, just in time to witness the community face potentially irrevocable change.
That description may make Beasts sound trippy and strange, but it is, above all, beautiful. Hushpuppy and Wink's relationship, while often fraught with conflict, is, in its own way, tender. (I mean, if my Daddy chanted "Beast It!!" to me to inspire me to snap a crab with my own hands, I'd know he meant it with love.)
Zeitlin's camera makes the most of The Bathtub's clutter and there are some montages set to music that are sequences of pure cinema joy. It's hard not to think about the work of Terrence Malick (or the finest Malick impersonation, David Gordon Green's George Washington) but don't let the form fool ya. Voice over and triumphant score aside, there is an undercurrent of funk permeating Beasts that won't be found in Malick's ethereal masterpieces.
At first I was quite flabbergasted to learn this intensely cinematic film was based on a play. But beneath the surface of the dreamlike set pieces and the otherworldy specificity of the location, there are very dramatic, personal scenes. In addition to the father-daughter drama are some wonderful moments on a mysterious shrimping boat festooned with fast food wrappers that will "take you where you need to go," and a hazy kitchen interaction between Hushpuppy and a mother surrogate.
There is also a great, imprecise sadness, and this is ultimately due to the striking performance by young Quvenzhané Wallis. I can't recall a performance by a child actor in an American film quite this good.
That said, people at Sundance didn't seem to know what to make of Beasts. I overheard this exact conversation twice at the festival:
"What did you think of The Beasts of the Southern Wild?"
"Ask me again in an hour."
But while I definitely recognize the need to stew a bit on this one, I didn't need more than thirty seconds after the credits rolled to be convinced that director Benh Zeitlin is a major new talent with a unique creative energy and, no doubt, tremendous drive. Update: This film has now been picked up for distribution by Fox Searchlight.